Finding the Main Idea

English language learners (ELLs) may have some difficulty identifying the main idea when they are reading a paragraph. Teaching students how to paraphrase can help them learn to pick out what is important in the material that they read. This is a great strategy which you can accompany with other effective practices, such as previewing the story, making predictions, activating prior knowledge, using text features such as the title and other headings, and pre-reading key sections (like the introduction and conclusion). All of these strategies will help ELLs improve their understanding of the material they are reading better as they identify the important points in the text, and the main idea.

Key Benefits

It is essential to remember that students learn through different learning modalities. For this reason, it is important to teach students a variety of strategies, such as paraphrasing, note-taking, previewing, and reading key paragraphs. All of these strategies can help ELLs enhance their reading comprehension skills.

Suggested Activities

Lower Grade Activities

In lower grades, the teacher should present this lesson as a whole group activity.

  • Ensure ELLs receive a list of any challenging vocabulary words they might encounter. It's a good idea to provide an explanation, and the meaning for each word before they begin to read the story.
  • Allow students to have an oral discussion on what each paragraph describes, and provide time for students to write the details for each paragraph.
  • Use a graphic organizer to assist students in identifying main ideas, and supporting details.
  • Allow ELLs to use their native language to talk, or write, about the story.

Upper Grade Activities

Teachers may choose to first model the first paragraph and let students work in small groups as they find the main idea.

  • Encourage students to read the story/book several times.
    • Have an initial reading and discussion.
    • Ask students to read the text a second time, and encourage them to take notes.
    • Have students paraphrase their own notes to help them better understand the main idea.
    • Hold a group discussion to share ideas about the main idea of the story/book.

IDEA: Backwards web graphic organizer

As they read, have your students pause at each paragraph. Then ask, them to use a web graphic organizer backwards.

  • This means that students must begin by writing the details for each section, or paragraph,
  • then write a summary sentence with those details,
  • and finally, try to find the main idea based on those summary sentences.

Download a PDF of the "find the main idea" web graphic organizer.



Fisk, C., & Hurst, B. (2003). Paraphrasing for comprehension. The Reading Teacher, 57(2), 182-195.

Hennings, D. G. (1991). Essential reading: Targeting, tracking, and thinking about main ideas. Journal of Reading, 34(5), 346-353.


Caryn teaches at Hewlett-Woodmere School, in Long Island, NY. She also teaches graduate Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) courses at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, NY. She has an extensive background in the area of linguistics, with an emphasis on English literature and education. She also has a Masters' degree in TESOL education. She is on the executive board of New York State (NYS) TESOL and is an English as a Second Language (ESL) lead teacher/coordinator.


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